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Anti-Homework Rebels Gain A New Recruit: The Principal

GALLOWAY, N.J. — After Donna Cushlanis’s son kept bursting into tears midway through his second-grade math problems, which one night took over an hour, she told him not to do all of his homework.“How many times do you have to add seven plus two?” Ms. Cushlanis, 46, said. “I have no problem with doing homework, but that put us both over the edge. I got to the point that this is enough.”

Ms. Cushlanis, a secretary for the Galloway school district, complained to her boss, Annette C. Giaquinto, the superintendent. It turned out that the district, which serves 3,500 kindergarten through eighth-grade students, was already re-evaluating its homework practices. The school board will vote this summer on a proposal to limit weeknight homework to 10 minutes for each year of school — 20 minutes for second graders, and so forth — and ban assignments on weekends, holidays and school vacations.

Galloway, a mostly middle-class community northwest of Atlantic City, is part of a wave of districts across the nation trying to remake homework amid concerns that high-stakes testing and competition for college have fueled a nightly grind that is stressing out children and depriving them of play and rest, yet doing little to raise achievement, particularly in elementary grades.

Such efforts have drawn criticism from some teachers and some parents who counter that students must study more, not less, if they are to succeed. Even so, the anti-homework movement has been reignited in recent months by the documentary “Race to Nowhere,” about burned-out students caught in a pressure-cooker educational system.

“There is simply no proof that most homework as we know it improves school performance,” said Vicki Abeles, the filmmaker and a mother of three from California. “And by expecting kids to work a ‘second shift’ in what should be their downtime, the presence of schoolwork at home is negatively affecting the health of our young people and the quality of family time.”

So teachers at Mango Elementary School in Fontana, Calif., are replacing homework with “goal work” that is specific to individual student’s needs and that can be completed in class or at home at his or her own pace. The Pleasanton School District, north of San Jose, Calif., is proposing this month to cut homework times by nearly half and prohibit weekend assignments in elementary grades because, as one administrator said, “parents want their kids back.”

Ridgewood High School in New Jersey introduced a homework-free winter break in December. Schools in Bleckley County, Ga., have instituted “no homework nights” throughout the year. The Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a gifted and talented program, has made homework optional.

“I think people confuse homework with rigor,” said Donna Taylor, the Brooklyn School’s principal, who views homework for children under 11 as primarily benefiting parents by helping them feel connected to the classroom.

The homework revolution has also spread north to Toronto, which in 2008 banned homework for kindergartners and for older children on school holidays, and to the Philippines, where the education department recently opposed weekend assignments so that students can “enjoy their childhood.”

Research has long suggested that homework in small doses can reinforce basic skills and help young children develop study habits, but that there are diminishing returns, said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. The 10-minute guideline has generally been shown to be effective, Dr. Cooper said, adding that over all, “there is a minimal relationship between how much homework young kids do and how well they test.”

Still, efforts to roll back homework have been opposed by those who counter that there is not enough time in the school day to cover required topics and that homework reinforces classroom learning. In Coronado, Calif., the school board rejected a proposal by the superintendent to eliminate homework on weekends and holidays after some parents said that was when they had time to help their children and others worried it would result in more homework on weeknights.

“Most of our kids can’t spell without spell check or add unless it comes up on the computer,” said Karol Ball, 51, who has two teenage sons in the Atlantic City district. “If we coddle them when they’re younger, what happens when they get into the real world? No one’s going to say to them, ‘You don’t have to work extra hard to get that project done; just turn in what you got.’ ”

Homework wars have divided communities for over a century. In the 1950s, the Sputnik launching ushered in heavier workloads for American students in the race to keep up with the Soviet Union. The 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” and, more recently, the testing pressures of the No Child Left Behind law, also resulted in more homework for children at younger ages.

A few public and private schools have renounced homework in recent years, but most have sought a middle ground. In Galloway, the policy would stipulate that homework cover only topics already addressed in class.

“It’s been a fairly rote, thoughtless process for a long time, and schools are starting to realize this is a problem,” said Cathy J. Vatterott, an associate education professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and author of “Rethinking Homework.”

But Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, views policies dictating how to do homework as “taking something that should be professional practice and making it into an assembly-line process.” Dr. Giaquinto, Galloway’s superintendent, said the goal of the proposed policy was to make homework “meaningful and manageable,” noting that teachers would have to coordinate assignments so that a student’s total homework would not exceed the time limit.

Ms. Cushlanis, a single mother of triplets who are in different classes, is looking forward to having things standardized. Last year, in second grade, her son Nathan had twice as much homework as his brothers; this year, her son Jared has the most. If the boys do not finish their homework, they must do so the next day during recess.

“They shouldn’t be bombarded with homework,” Ms. Cushlanis said. “Kids need to be able to play; they need outlets.”

But William Parker, a construction worker who attended the Galloway schools and has a nephew in first grade, said the policy might lead children to focus on the clock rather than on their studies.

“This is so stupid,” Mr. Parker said. “Part of growing up is having a lot of homework every day. You’re supposed to say, ‘I can’t come out and play because I have to stay in and do homework.’ ”

by Winnie Hu --- 06/16/11 --- The New York Times ---

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Posted in: News on July 23, 2011 @ 8:04 AM

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